Monday, June 21, 2010

"Treme," Finale, Season 1

Posted By on Mon, Jun 21, 2010 at 12:47 PM

PURPLE REIGN: Clarke Peters (center) as the big chief
  • Courtesy of HBO
  • PURPLE REIGN: Clarke Peters (center) as the big chief
The most haunting images of “Treme’s” first season finale involve two dancing men and two dancing women. That seems appropriate for a series whose theme song includes an exhortation to “Jumpin’ and having fun,” even though throughout “Treme,” the New Orleans pleasure principle doesn’t always succeed as a way of life.

The men in question danced with each other, if “dance” is the word. On St. Joseph’s Night, Albert, storming the streets in full Big Chief regalia, encountered another Mardis Gras Indian tribe. Albert and the other chief had a face-off like You Got Served with sequins or two alpha male peacocks competing plumage-to-plumage. The situation defuses thanks to the mutual displays of respect (similar to the way the public affairs cop kept the police and Indians from brawling). Albert and the Indians serve as peculiar exemplars of personal pride, and they parade in the streets without the usual Mardi Gras audience. Albert also proves perfectly comfortable posing for passers-by — but why does it look like a tennis player on his outfit?

The women, Janette and Ladonna, danced in two separate scenes. Janette spent her last day in New Orleans with Davis, who attempted to change her mind about moving to New York. Last week I was speculating that New Orleans had a dysfunctional romance with its citizens, comparable to Sonny and Annie, but New Orleans can also be as loving as Davis at his most attentive. Highlights included a nap by the river, John Boutte (who sings the show’s theme song) serenading Janette on her porch, and rockin’ out at a juke joint. Kim Dickens’ dancing wasn’t some choreographed number, though, but just a grown-up woman blowing off steam. Her lack of self-consciousness was oddly touching, in a neat bit of acting without seeming to act. And perhaps her dance hinted that Janette was already half gone.

Janette danced like she knew no one was watching, while LaDonna, at the second line following her brother’s funeral, danced in remarkable show of defiant dignity. A scarf in hand, her neck extended, Alexander gave a touching display of poise amid grief, and confirms one last time that she’s the “Treme” actor most deserving of an Emmy. The finale gave her other great moments, too: when she made a deal with the sleazy roofer, she bared her teeth in a non-smile that reminded of the queen from Aliens.

A woman who pointedly doesn’t dance on the episode is Toni, who perhaps wouldn’t dance at David’s funeral regardless, but has no intention of dancing at Creighton’s funeral, given that he committed suicide: “He quit! He fucking quit!... Can’t dance for ‘em when they quit.” Her daughter’s anguished cry, audible from outside the house, after the authorities discover Cray’s body, was a heartbreaker. (Note: This goes without saying, but you shouldn’t commit suicide, and you definitely shouldn’t commit suicide if you have a family.)

An interesting grace note to the Toni/Creighton subplot is that police officer David Morse gave her a chance to inspect his car before presumably allowing the CSI-types to inspect it. Proof of a suicide note would preclude insurance payments and compound the tragedy. She discovers “Toni, I Love You” inside his wallet, breaks down and drives off distraught, while we pray she doesn’t wreck her car. It’s interesting that the whole investigation into Davis’ disappearance involved Toni examining failures of the system and police bending rules. Here, the police bent rules in her favor, although in the name of compassion, rather than institutional ass-covering.

“Treme’s” finale included the powerful scenes of David, still alive, running his errand on the day of the hurricane, as well as the rest of the regulars making their preparations — or not. It’s a haunting, fascinating sequence, given weight by the audience’s foreknowledge of the storm and its devastating aftermath — there’s Creighton still alive, reading The Moviegoer by Walker Percy. But given that many of the relationships didn’t change all that much, and we don’t see major moments of the disaster (Sonny’s mythic rescue of that guy during the flood would’ve been a good one), it may not have been as strong as it could’ve been.

In a way, that’s consistent with the series, which makes a point of avoiding televisions clichés of conflicts and epiphanies. Perhaps the finale’s only false note happened when Davis returned from has date with Janette (which turned out to be a goodbye) to find Annie there waiting for them, tying their relationship plots in a pat little bow. Similarly, for a show that eschews sentiment, Antoine’s subplot seemed a little trivial. He got a career-highlight gig playing for Allen Toussaint and a host of E&B legends, only to lose most of his winnings at the poker table. Oh Antoine, will you never win?

I found the finale’s musical choices to be particularly strong, but that may be because I simply recognized more of them. David’s funeral and second line included “I’ll Fly Away” and “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” (a song I always associate with the weird New Orleans jazz funeral/murder scene from Live and Let Die). Albert and son noodle around on “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby” (“baby” possibly having a familial context here), and it was funny that they spent more time arguing then playing — their tension continues. Steve Earle, as Annie’s musician friend, worked on a New Orleans tribute song that we heard over the closing credits. Note that his guitar included the words “This machine floats,” an homage to Woody Guthrie’s guitar that featured the sign “This machine kills fascists.” Even the font was similar.

Perhaps most finale’s appropriate song was “Time Is On My Side,” and not just because it was sung by Irma Thomas, who one of Davis’ party guests impersonated last week. The chorus “You’ll come running back to me” is something of a running question on the show. Albert shows confidence that New Orleans’ displaced citizens will eventually return.

We know “Treme” will be back — HBO has picked up the show for another season — but it’s difficult to anticipate where it’ll go from here. Part of me wants to have Officer David Morse back as a crusading regular and “Lost”-style flashbacks to the adventures during the flood, in the Superdome, etc., but David Simon can be expected to deliver more bittersweet, Altmanesque ambiguity. Despite being an almost hectoring love letter to New Orleans, “Treme” leaves you with mixed feelings about the city, which seems like a nice place to visit — but would you want to live there?

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